Rounding a curve on Avenue JFK near the town of Ettelbruck in Luxembourg, a tall statue of a man holding field glasses stood on the right. I had seen this same statue from a bus window back in October 2012. But this time it was December 2016 and I was driving a rental car from Luxembourg City to finally visit it. The statue depicts America’s rock star military commander, General George Patton, staring defiantly and proudly into the distance. The pose with the field glasses lowered seems to show Patton strategizing moments after using them to view the enemy’s position. There is no fear in his expression and you can imagine that behind those determined eyes are several colorful words for the Nazis or anyone questioning his decisions.
I started to take a right just after the Sherman Tank when I realized there was no ramp for car access. My car tire brushed the curb and I awkwardly veered back in the lane. Patton’s look of determination suddenly felt mocking as if all overly eager American tourists do the same stupid thing. I managed to keep my calm and looped back thru Ettelbruck looking for a place to park. The closest parking seems to be at the Ettelbruck train station (10 min walk) although it is possible to get a little closer by pulling off the side of the road on the east side of the bridge just before the Patton Monument. This is where I ended up. My pride regained, I grabbed a bottle of Battin beer from the trunk and walked across the bridge towards the statue.
This wasn’t just some random spot where I was about to give a toast to the man. Back on Christmas Day 1944, Patton and his 3rd Army came rolling in and liberated the city from the Germans. As with many liberated villages, the final liberation was not necessarily the first liberation. Ettelbruck had already been liberated but recaptured during the Battle of the Bulge before Patton came to the rescue.
I chose a Battin Tripel beer to do the honors, because…
Well… it was one of the beers in my trunk. Of course the similarity in spelling had the most to do with it. But in afterthought you could say it was quite apropos that the beer was from Luxembourg and the Tripel could be a reminder of Patton’s 3rd Army. However, the truth of the matter is that I was already in Luxembourg so having a Luxembourg beer in my trunk would be expected. The rest of it, e.g. spelling, Tripel, was pure luck.
So there I stood taking a photo of my Battin beer with Patton and taking a moment to appreciate that this wasn’t the first time I had a chance to toast the man. Patton has left his legacy all over Europe, and the first time I crossed paths with Patton was in the Czech city of Plzen back in June 2013….
(swirling flashback visual effects)
Plzen, Czech Republic
I had no idea when I arrived at my hotel in Plzen (after a train ride from Prague) that I would soon bump into the legacy of one of America’s most controversial and famous military figures. I was in Plzen for one thing and one thing only. Pilsner Urquell Brewery. Plzen is the birthplace and namesake of pilsner style beer and visiting the city and its brewery is a first-order beer pilgrimage. While I was in my hotel getting psyched up about drinking a tasty Czech pilsner, I did a brief internet search of Plzen’s tourist sites and discovered the Patton Memorial Museum. I asked the front desk for a little insight into the location of the museum, but nobody could recall it. I had the sense that I would be venturing somewhere rather obscure to the locals. But before I would find out why there was a Patton museum in Plzen to begin with, there were two stops. First to the brewery to get my timed entrance ticket and while I waited, a short visit to….
The Plzen Brewery Museum is a great way to preface a visit to the brewery. It gives a good overview of the history of Czech beer. You will be introduced to the legendary Gambrinus, who for centuries was considered in folklore to be the inventor of beer. Gambrinus is to beer what King Arthur is to Britain. Thru the years, as the stories and myths clouded the true origin of the name, certain individuals became the identity of Gambrinus. The most fun and unsubstantiated was Jan Primus (or John I), Duke of Brabant (now part of Belgium) from 1252-1294. Both Primus beer (Belgium) and Hertog Jan beer (Netherlands) are named after him. It is good to have this background because later on the tour, one discovers that Gambrinus beer is in partnership with Pilsner Urquell and brewed in the same location. It all makes perfect sense.
Pilsner Urquell Brewery
The Plzen Beer Party?
Wherever you are right now reading this (with the exception of maybe Ireland and UK), if you think of the most common beer at your local watering hole or at your favorite sporting event, the beer you are probably thinking of is blond, foamy, crystal clear, refreshing, slightly bitter or sweet, and having a moderate alcohol content. This is the pilsner. I assume most of you were thinking of Bud Light, Heineken, Carlsberg, Jupiler, Stauder, and countless others. While beer making can be traced back almost 4000 years, the pilsner was more or less created in 1842.
All Americans are familiar with the Boston Tea Party, the most famous act of beverage-related protest in our history. But in the history of the post-Napoleonic world, there is perhaps no act of beverage-related protest that has had more affect on our lives than the Plzen Beer Party. Never heard of it? That’s because I made up the name. In Czech, it is called the Pivní Kalamitê (or beer calamity). The year was 1838. Beer made in Plzen at that time was top-fermented, dark and turgid, and had a short shelf-life. But the Plzen brewery had fallen behind the times. Many breweries outside Plzen had already switched to bottom-fermentation beer which was also dark but had a longer shelf-life and a cleaner taste. Some of these breweries were importing their beer into Plzen and unscrupulously undercutting the prices of the local brewery. High beer prices and a general shift in public taste towards cleaner tasting beer meant that locally brewed beer was going unsold and therefore going bad. The unrest came to a boiling point when Czech citizens dressed up as native Czech citizens and dumped 36 barrels of local beer in front of the Plzen City Hall. The city responded by building a new brewery and hiring a Bavarian brewmaster Josef Groll, who radically changed the course of beer history by using paler malts and creating the golden colored beer that we all overpay for at sporting events and rock concerts.
For more information, the most eloquent history I found on the subject of Pilsner Urquell and the beer calamity can be found on the Beer Culture Blog. If you like the blog, please leave a comment that you like it and mention that you found it thru my website. I could use the publicity.
The Brewery Tour
170 years after the Pivní Kalamitê, I found myself at Ground Zero. The tour of Pilsner Urquell is simply the best brewery tour that I have ever experienced. Not once was I totally overcome with that let’s just get to the beer tasting feeling. A decorative bus zips you from the welcome center to the brewing and bottling plant where your guide takes you through, around, under, and above every corner of the brewery.
Most of the time when one takes a brewery tour, one already knows what that particular beer tastes like. So sampling a Pilsner Urquell from a bottle or tap would not have been a unique experience. However at the end of this tour, rather than tasting the final product, we were lovingly served unfiltered pilsner from a large wooden cask. This was mighty tasty, folks. If I had been left alone with this cask, I would have become the chow hound in the “this time we didn’t forget the gravy” Looney Tunes cartoon.
After the Partridge Family bus whisked me back to the welcome center, I picked up a couple new beer glasses for my collection and took a walk to the city center to find out about another American who probably tasted the Pilsner Urquell on May 6, 1945.
Patton Memorial Museum
While the pouring of beer in 1838 was done as a protest, the pouring of beer that occurred on May 6, 1945 in front of the Plzen City Hall would have accompanied a completely different atmosphere . This was Liberation Day for Plzen and the most famous of the liberators was General George Patton and the US Third Army. The party lasted until November when the Allies left the city and the former Czechoslovakia fell under communism. For the next 44 years, the true story of Plzen’s liberation was shuffled under the carpet and a Soviet version was indoctrinated to the public. But in 1990, shortly after the Velvet Revolution, Plzen quickly shed the Soviet propaganda and began an annual May celebration of the American liberation. On May 5, 2005, one day less than the 60-year anniversary of the liberation, the Patton Memorial Museum was opened.
The museum has all of the characteristics that in my opinion make military museums charming: authentically dressed mannequins engaged in various military activities, the smell of old metal and musty artifacts, glass displays filled with all sorts of curiosities, and interesting detail in every direction. The only thing missing was other visitors. I shuffled quietly from display to display skimming over some information panels, carefully reading others, never once bumping into another soul. The hotelier’s unfamiliarity might be contagious.
As I was making my way from the second floor exhibits to the stairwell to go back down, someone sitting at a desk in an adjacent office spoke to me in Czech. My reply in English and my distinctly American accent caught his attention. Besides the man behind the desk, another man clenching a Clint Eastwood-like cigar between his lips peered out of the doorway. They invited me in for a beer, and despite my initial hesitation to be exposed to smoke, I couldn’t refuse the gesture of hospitality.
The man behind the desk was Milan Jisa, the curator of the museum. For the next 5 hours, I sat there listening to his stories about his passion for Patton, history, Czech country music, and his time working as a prisoner in a Russian mine for refusing to do mandatory military service. He allowed me to hold a trophy once won by Patton in 1931 and given to Milan as a gift by Patton’s grandson.
It was one of the most interesting few hours I’ve ever had in my travels. Ironically the beer we drank was Bofferding from Luxembourg, where this story comes full circle.
Following Patton’s Legacy
While I was visiting with Milan at the Patton Museum in Plzen, he mentioned the other museum in Ettelbruck, Luxembourg. Unfortunately when I visited the museum in Ettelbruck in December 2016, it was closed. Toasting a Battin to the Patton statue was only partially completing the quest which began when I first passed this statue by bus in 2011, visited Plzen in 2013, and briefly stopped in Ettelbruck a month ago. I felt as if there was so much more left to complete this journey. So I decided to look into what other Patton-related sites exist in Europe.
A good reference is the itinerary of a tour given by Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours, In Patton’s Footsteps Tour. This tour mainly focuses on Patton’s journey from the Normandy invasion thru the Battle of the Bulge and includes his honeymoon and death, but doesn’t include the eastern Czechoslovakian liberation or the oft overlooked Italian campaign which preceded Normandy. While I have been to many of the places visited by the tour, most of which I was unaware had a connection to Patton, it was the mention of Patton’s burial in the American Cemetery in Hamm, Luxembourg that gave me another great reason to return to Luxembourg in the future. So a further travel adventure awaits and another chance to enjoy a great beer with the one and only General George Patton.